I was riveted by the play “In the Belly of the Whale” at the Mizel Center for Performing Arts in Denver this weekend. Jonathan Bender, the creator and sole performer, spent two and a half years working on this play, in which he explores the topic of what it means to be Jewish in the United States today. He plays the parts of eight people with whom he conducted interviews on this topic. In this one-act production, he is everyone from himself, a self-proclaimed fourth generation New York Jew who grew up in Scottsdale, AZ with a Christmas tree to an atheist middle-aged male professor, to a pregnant orthodox woman, to my personal favorite, a fourteen year old girl whose mother is Jewish and father isn’t. After the show my boyfriend said he found it interesting that it was hard at times to tell when Bender was playing himself versus any of his other characters. Considering he worked on this performance for over two years I figured he knew exactly what he was doing. I posited that that this was exactly his intention; by blurring the line between himself and his array of characters, each with a unique relationship to their Judaism, he elucidated the fact that he struggled with his own Judaism in terms of what it meant to him, how and if he chose to practice. Perhaps he was trying to highlight the fact that he had experienced the thoughts and emotions of all of his characters at different points in his life. I suspect he was suggesting that at one time or another all modern Jews in the United States have looked around at the world, at their communities, at other Jews and asked ourselves “Do they have it right? Am I the one who has it wrong? Can we all be right? Is this worth the effort? What do I do with this guilt? What if I do want a Christmas Tree? How am I to negotiate the path of my Judaism in the context of all the myriad ways I can practice it… that is, if I choose to at all.” And so Bender tells us his story from the proverbial “Belly of the Whale,” the destination to which the Torah’s Jonah was relegated when he questioned his belief in God.
I would highly recommend this show. It’s still playing in Cherry Creek for at least another week. After the show there was a brief discussion period with Bender. He would like to expand the show’s tour, so if you or anyone you know would be interested in booking this show, I am sure he would really appreciate it. Its definitely worth seeing. And if you don’t like it, its only an hour!
Of note, if you should see the Mizel Center performance and you are interested in some great pre-show barbeque, I HIGHLY recommend Sam Taylor’s Barbeque. Sure, it stung to have to watch the Tarheels get stomped by Kansas in the Final Four, but Sam’s tender brisket plate softened the blow somewhat.